April 30, 2014

Review: Gorgeous

Gorgeous By Paul Rudnick
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy

I feel in love with GORGEOUS's hardcover jacket, but I might like the look of the paperback even better.  (Plus, the white/black/red color scheme is ever so slightly more plot relevant than the black/red/blue color scheme.)  GORGEOUS is the young adult debut of Paul Rudnick, a writer known for his plays and humor pieces in The New Yorker.

In this modern-day Cinderella story, Becky Randle is left adrift when her beloved mother dies.  Then she finds a phone number in her mother's things, with instructions to call it.  She reaches reclusive fashion designer Tom Kelly, who promises her three dresses that will make her the most beautiful woman in the world.  The catch?  She must fall in love and marry within the year.

I enjoyed Becky's identity struggle.  She enjoys being confident, intimidating Rebecca, but can't quite forget that she's just nice, middle-of-the-road Becky.  Being Rebecca opens her up to a world of new experiences, and the potential to use her fame for good, but everyone warns her that there will be a cost to that fame.  And she's not entirely clueless that there's something sinister about the magic Kelly has worked upon her.

I do feel like GORGEOUS tried to bite off a bit too much.  There isn't really room for both Becky's coming of age and her true, magical romance.  I never quite bought the depth of her feelings because she didn't spend much time with the guy.  I did buy her relationship with her best friend Rocher, which is one of the highlights of the book.  Rocher is happy for Rebecca, and Rebecca sticks by her oldest friend.  There's no question that their relationship has changed, but both girls fight for each other.

In the end, GORGEOUS was a bit uneven and the internal logic doesn't always hang together, but it is fun and positive.  I loved seeing Becky's growth throughout the novel and cheered for her to get a fairytale ending, even when it looked impossible.  I think GORGEOUS would definitely liven up an airplane ride - you could imagine you were traveling Rebecca-style.

Fans of fairytales might want to check out Fairy Tale Fortnight, hosted by The Book Rat.

April 29, 2014

Review: Knightley and Son

April is National Poetry Month, and Clear Eyes, Full Shelves celebrates every year with a novel-in-verse week.  Sunday started their third-annual Verse Novel Week.  Be sure to check it out, especially my guest review of THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander.

Knightley and Son By Rohan Gavin
Available now from Bloomsbury
Review copy

Darkus Knightley is the son of Alan Knightley, a detective who has been in a coma for years.  Darkus has been studying the record of his dad's cases, eager to help him when he wakes up.  But Knightley's cases weren't quite normal, and they drove him to a breakdown.  It is not the best future for Darkus.

I loved the idea of KNIGHTLEY & SON, father and son detective tackling strange cases, including the current one, involving a bestselling self-help book.  (It's clearly modeled after THE SECRET, but it is somewhat more sinister.)  The execution never quite won me over.  Based on the premise I wasn't expecting many female characters, for instance, but Darkus does have a stepsister who is smart, resourceful, and often notices the few things he misses.  So she gets sidelined for most of the book, despite being a character who would clearly add something to the mix.

The father-son relationship didn't quite work for me either.  Knightley keeps falling asleep due to the effects of his coma.  That gets him out of the way too and leaves most of the book to Darkus alone.  When they do work together, Knightley is reluctant to involve him.  That's responsible parenting, but I was expecting to see them work together as a detective team.

Then, there was Darkus himself.  He strives to be totally logical, like his father.  This has the effect of having him behave entirely unlike most human beings.  He also comes off as rather stilted.  It's a deliberate choice on the part of the character, but it's a ridiculous one.  Maybe I would've rolled with it when I was the age of the intended audience, but maybe not.  The book does seem to realize it's a silly choice that Darkus needs to grow out of, but then it also realizes his name is silly.  That doesn't change the effect of reading it.

There are several fun scenes in KNIGHTLEY & SON, including a shining moment for Tilly, the stepsister.  I wish it had been more of an ensemble story (the pieces are all there!) instead of focused on Darkus, but the detective working alone isn't an unknown trope.  I would give this to a 10-12 year old who likes mysteries and conspiracies.  There is series potential.

April 28, 2014

Review: Liv, Forever

Book Cover By Amy Talkington
Available now from Soho Teen
Review copy

The titular Liv is a teenager with an art scholarship to Wickham Hall.  She's a bit out of place with the old-money students, but she soon makes friends with fellow, strange scholarship student Gabe and starts dating Malcolm.  Okay, so it isn't all good.  Gabe claims to see ghosts, for example.  But Liv's love for Malcolm smooths over the school's rough edges.

Then Liv dies.

In some ways, I wish that the blurb of LIV, FOREVER didn't give away her death.  It's a daring move for the book, and a rare one.  The plucky heroine and her friends start realizing something is awry, but they act too late.  It's not that Liv does anything stupid.  She just doesn't get stupidly lucky, or jump to strange conclusions about supernatural happenings for no reason.  All she does is go to a school that could really help her career and fall for a sweet, handsome boy.  And because of that, she dies.

Liv, Malcolm, and Gabe work together to uncover who killed Liv.  As they do so, they discover that girls have been dying pretty regularly at Wickham Hall.  Who done it and why isn't entirely surprising, but the journey there is well done.  I liked the little touches, like the fact that Liv can only communicate with Malcolm through Gabe.  I liked that debut author Amy Talkington resisted the urge to throw in a love triangle.  I loved the glimpses at the lives of the other dead girls, their ambitions and hopes and the injustice of it all.

The mystery plot doesn't take a backseat to the romance, but the romance is the emotional core of LIV, FOREVER.  It proceeds pretty quickly, because Liv dies early in the school year and they have to be deeply in love before their death.  I mean, it doesn't take much convincing that two good-looking teenagers with similar interests would be into each other, but they got together so fast I was convinced rich-boy Malcolm was up to something nefarious.  But the sweetness of their relationship won me over.

If you're looking for a standalone, romantic ghost story, you might pick up LIV, FOREVER.  (There is a sequel hook at the end, but LIV, FOREVER can be read alone.)  It has a few unique flourishes that make up for the predictable plot.  It also contains some of the worst friends ever, seriously.

April 27, 2014

Review and Giveaway: Rose and the Lost Princess

Rose Second in the Rose series
By Holly Webb
Available now from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Review copy
Read my review of Rose

ROSE was a gentle fantasy about a young orphan who goes to work in a alchemist's house, realizes she has magic herself, and bands together with the alchemist's apprentice and daughter to save children who have been kidnapped by an evil magician.  It was a finalist for a CYBIL, and a particular favorite of mine.  When ROSE AND THE LOST PRINCESS showed up on Netgalley, I immediately requested it.

The Rose books are high in continuity.  The kingdom is reeling from the events of ROSE, and all magician's are being treated with suspicion, no matter that it was magicians who were needed to rescue the children.  The suspicion and paranoia aren't helped when the weather is a strange, heavy winter and there is an attempted kidnapping on the beloved older princess.  (I think the winter theme will appeal to fans of Frozen.)

Once again, Rose becomes involved in the strange events going on.  And she is an asset to the situation, because she's level headed, kind, and both willing to work with others and listen to their ideas.  Rose is still living in an uneasy class situation.  She prefers to remain a servant and work for her living, but the other servants are wary of her magic.  She could easily be adopted into a rich family, as is proper for a magician, but that's not what she wants.  She also needs to learn more about her powers.  She's been using them by instinct, but she needs knowledge and control, especially if she's going to use her powers to defend from dark magicians.

The supporting cast returns too, and they're still wonderful.  There's a nice mix of male and female characters, and they show a wide range of personalities.  Rose might be a practical little girl, but she's certainly not surrounded by practical little children.  The gentle tone remains as well, even though the stakes have risen.

I felt that ROSE AND THE LOST PRINCESS ended somewhat abruptly, but I can live with that since there's a third book coming.  I can't wait for ROSE AND THE MAGICIAN'S MASK to be released in the US.  This is a fantastic children's series, and one I'll have to save for my niece and nephew when they get older.

Thanks to Sourcebooks, I have one copy of ROSE AND THE LOST PRINCESS to give away to a reader in the US or Canada.  Use the Rafflecopter below to enter.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

April 25, 2014

Review: The Serpent of Venice

The Serpent of Venice Sequel to Fool
By Christopher Moore
Available now from William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

Christopher Moore's novels are a bit hit and miss for me, but the ones I love I love.  And FOOL, a retelling of KING LEAR, is absolutely one of my favorites.  I was quite excited to see that Moore was returning to the character of Pocket.  (Jeff and Drool are back as well.)

In THE SERPENT OF VENICE, Moore throws OTHELLO, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and "The Cask of Amontillado" into a pot with a dragon and lets loose with the results.  Pocket goes to Venice on Cordelia's orders, to try to prevent another Crusade, but everything starts going awry when Cordelia is murdered.  (This, sadly, means that there is very little Cordelia in the book, though of course her ghost does get to make an appearance.)  After a rather odd misadventure, Pocket is sheltered by the Jewish community of Venice and makes his plans for revenge.

If you're familiar with the Shakespearean plays, it's quite interesting to see what Moore makes of them.  Some heroes become villains, for instance.  I didn't agree with all of his changes, but others made perfect sense.  And I quite enjoyed the note at the end where he explains what guided him to his interpretation of certain characters, like Portia.

I think THE SERPENT OF VENICE isn't quite as good as FOOL, but it does have a high bar to clear there.  However, it is just as hilarious, twisted, and perverse as I could've hoped.   I don't normally have a vulgar sense of humor, but something about Moore's writing brings it out in me.  THE SERPENT OF VENICE is more violent than some of his other books, but that suits the setting.

One of the things I think THE SERPENT OF VENICE does best is with Shylock, Jessica, and the other Jews.  There just as much a part of the humor as anyone else, but Moore doesn't back down from showing that they are treated is wrong.  The historical truths are there (often footnoted), and the modern sensibility is fairly scathing about it.  At the same time, Shylock and Jessica are still allowed to be flawed characters.

I do recommend reading FOOL before THE SERPENT OF VENICE.  THE SERPENT OF VENICE is capable of standing alone, but I think it is probably more fun if you know who Pocket and his companions are.  If you enjoyed FOOL, then you should definitely read THE SERPENT OF VENICE.  I'm very happy Moore decided to revisit these characters and their setting.

April 24, 2014

Review: Going Over

Going Over By Beth Kephart
Available now from Chronicle Books
Review copy
Read more in my Beth Kephart tag

"You have to wait. You have to be absolutely sure. Love is the biggest thing, of course. But there are other considerations." -p. 78

I have never been to Berlin.  I have certainly never been to 1983 Berlin, given that I was yet to be born.  But Beth Kephart took me there.  She brought to life a city divided.  She showed a city where sometimes people never come home, to be buried without a body.  She showed a city where a group of immigrants do not fit in, and not just because they don't speak the languages.  She showed two teenagers who are in love, who sometimes resent each other and who make art and who look at the stars and who plan.  Two teenagers who are stuck on opposite sides of that city divided.

Stefan lives in East Berlin with his grandmother.  He is the more timid of the two, but if he's going to be with Ada, he'll be the one who bears the risk of escaping over the wall.  Ada lives in West Berlin with her mother and grandmother and works at a daycare center where one of her young charges has gone missing.  She was the last person to see him, but she can't convince anyone else to look for him even though she knows he must be in danger.  It's another straw that's breaking her back, because Ada isn't sure how long she can keep waiting for Stefan.  She loves him, but she's young, and she only sees him twice a year.  He isn't there for her, and that's often what you need most from the people you love.

Beth Kephart was already an accomplished, polished author when she started writing YA fiction.  But with every new release it feels like she's growing more into herself as a writer.  When I read GOING OVER, there was something pure about the experience.  I felt like I was reading the book Kephart wanted to write.  She has a singular style, one that doesn't always work for me, but it sucked me in completely with GOING OVER.  I fell into the imagery and the rhythm of the prose, so often staccato and intense.

I, honestly, don't know much about Berlin during this time period.  It goes beyond never having been there myself.  Oh, I know the basics, which side is which, that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but I have no familiarity with the specifics.  (I'm definitely curious now about some of the suggested reading in the back.)  GOING OVER really did make me feel like I was peering in, through the characters of Stefan and Ada.  And I got different glimpses, because they not only live in very different areas, but have very different outlooks.

I will say that I enjoyed the Ada chapters more than the Stefan chapters.  Part of that is the nature of their characters.  She's more proactive and more reactive than Stefan.  Both of them think a lot, and Ada is the one more likely to go out and do something rather than think some more.  At the same time, Stefan isn't less developed than Ada.  He has just as much background, personality, and his own interests.  I'll also say that some of the ending is a bit convenient, but it fits the style of the story and there's still plenty of danger.

GOING OVER is a terrific bit of historical fiction.  I would recommend it for teens and up, because there's some death that younger readers might find upsetting.  There's another event that some readers might find upsetting, but it's written obliquely enough that younger readers shouldn't tune in to the details of the incident.  If the kid is a fan of WWII and post-WWII fiction it probably wouldn't bother them, however.

April 23, 2014

Review: In the Shadows

In the Shadows By Kiersten White
Art story by Jim Di Bartolo
Available April 29, 2014 from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read my review of Mind Games

You might wonder what this book is about, since the title is super bland and the cover features pretty colors, but little other detail.   Then, by design, it's a little hard to figure out what it's about once you start reading.  There are plucky children and zombies and mysterious meetings, and it all ties together in the end in a cathartic, rewarding ending.

Jim Di Bartolo is an artist probably known by most for his work in his wife Laini Taylor's novel LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES.  He conceived of IN THE SHADOWS and created somewhere around half of the finished work.  His half of the book is a wordless graphic novel following a young man with a distinctive scar through the years.  Since there are no words, the reader must piece together who the man, his enemies, and his goals are for themselves.  The art is beautiful and full of little details that are quite rewarding upon a reread.  (After I finished IN THE SHADOWS, I went back though the graphic novel sections only.)

Kiersten White's half of the book is a prose novel following a pair of sisters, a pair of brothers, and a mysterious orphan boy.  They come together partially because they're the only young people in the boarding house, but they stick together after they witness a suicide-that-didn't-happen and seek to figure out what in the world happened.  I loved the feel of White's prose, which had a nostalgia to it.  As events got creepier, it still felt like the characters' world was constantly bathed in golden sunlight.  It made an interesting contrast to the increasingly modern graphic novel interludes, and made me question by perception of when the prose events where happening in relation to the graphic novel events.

I loved how much IN THE SHADOWS prompted me to use my mind.  It is an easy read in many ways.  Di Bartolo's sections have no words, White's could come from a middle grade novel.  But the connections between events and characters are obscured.  One half of my mind was unraveling the mystery with Minnie, Cora, Thomas, Charles, and Arthur, and the other half was unraveling the mystery of the boy with the scar, and both halves exclaimed every time they recognized a green necklace or a man with a beard.

IN THE SHADOWS is a bold, inventive work that will delights fantasy fans.  It's dark, clever, and a brilliant mix of conventional and unconventional storytelling, right down to the two endings.  Life and death are perennial themes of literature, and White and Di Bartolo speak of them beautifully.

April 22, 2014

Review: The Taking

The Taking First in a series
By Kimberly Derting
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy
Read my interview with Kimberly and my review of The Body Finder

THE TAKING presents a classic sort of sci-fi mystery, the type that might show up in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. Kyra Agnew argues with her father on the way home from a softball game, gets out of the car, sees a light, and disappears for five years.  When she gets back, she remembers nothing and appears to be the exact same age as when she left.  At first, THE TAKING seems to be about Kyra's difficulties rebuilding a life that has moved on without her.  But Kyra might not be the exact same as when she left, and a suspicious government agent is snooping around.

THE TAKING scratched the same itch for me as Malinda Lo's recent duology ADAPTATION and INHERITANCE.  There's government conspiracies, missing memories, strange new abilities, and possible aliens.  I love this sort of science fiction, where something unexplained has happened and the characters have to figure out the new rules of their universe before they can act effectively.

However, THE TAKING also has the weakness of ADAPTATION: there is a lot of setup.  The payoff is learning what happened to Kyra.  But that knowledge is left for later books in the series.  The events of THE TAKING are interesting, but the book ends without providing answers for the many questions that arise during the story.

Normally, I like at least a little resolution in the first book in a series.  And, to be fair, there is some.  For a moment I thought several characters' fates would be left in the balance, but that is not the case.  However, THE TAKING still worked for me because the atmosphere drew me in so tightly and I am so curious about Kyra's fate. 

I am not thrilled that she's super special even among the people who have disappeared.  I am thrilled that she's an angry teenager who doesn't immediately warm up to her new brother or to her best friend and boyfriend who got together in their shared trauma over Kyra's disappearance.  Kyra's better side comes out around Tyler, her former boyfriend's brother who is now the right age for her.  It veered close to insta-love, but Tyler had an old childhood crush on her and provides Kyra the unquestioning support she needs but isn't getting from anyone else.

I was sucked in by THE TAKING and couldn't put it down once I started.  At the same time, I feel like I can't truly review THE TAKING until I read more and see how all this setup play out.  I have a good feeling though, because THE TAKING is a promising beginning.

April 21, 2014

Review: The Here and Now

The Here and Now By Ann Brashares
Available now from Delacorte Press (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Ann Brashares returns to YA with a novel that blends time travel, romance, and social issues together.  It's well timed - her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants novels are still well known, but old enough that no one is likely disappointed by Brashares exploring a different genre.  Her contemporary fans shouldn't worry though, because Brashares does very little with the time travel conceit.

Prenna and her mother live with a group of time travelers who all escaped a world devastated by a mosquito-borne plague.  They live under strict rules to keep from being discovered or from changing the future.  I never quite got why the community goes along with this.  Who would suddenly jump to the conclusion that they're from the future?  Why wouldn't they change the future?  Surely anything is better than 90% or so of the human race dying.  And, well, it's revealed in the first chapter or so that the community leaders killed a fourteen-year-old kid because he wasn't good enough at following the rules.  Anyone who thinks killing a fourteen-year old whose only crime is being to talkative is the answer is not a leader that should be followed.  Oddly, Prenna seems to be the only one who is really discontented.  Her best friend kind of goes along with her, but has no personal motivation.

When Prenna starts to truly become friends with Ethan, who isn't a time traveler, she suddenly becomes a figure of suspicion.  But Ethan helps Prenna dig deeper into her now, to ask questions about the rules she follows and what else she could do with her life.  The first two-thirds of the book remind me more of GATED or other books about characters escaping cults than other time travel novels.

I enjoyed THE HERE AND NOW for what it was.  It's a teen romance that encourages questioning your beliefs and being proactive about your future.  There's a nice environmental message.  It's an easy read and entirely unobjectional.  But if you're looking for time travel hijinks, you'll be disappointed.  For instance, no one actually time travels during the course of the novel.  THE HERE AND NOW is a fine beach read, nothing mind blowing.

April 20, 2014

Review: The Recruit

The RecruitThe Recruit Book one of the Cherub series
By Robert Muchamore
Available now from Simon Pulse (US) and Hodder (UK)
Review copy

I enjoy stories about child spies, like Alex Rider or the Gallagher Girls or Jimmy Coates.  Cherub is a popular series from the United Kingdom, now being re-released with updated covers.  I believe THE RECRUIT first came out in 2004, which meant it looked pretty dated.  I missed hearing about this series when it first came out, but when the re-release came to my attention, I wanted to give this spy series a shot.

James Adams is heading towards jail.  He's got an anger problem, and after his mom dies, he starts hanging out with the wrong kids at the orphanage.  It's just small marks on his record now, but he's sure to eventually do something that'll really get him in over his head.  But there's no reason to write him off.  He has potential.  And a secret agency known as CHERUB notices.

CHERUB uses children as spies, because adults so rarely suspect kids.  They can enter homes unsuspected, as friends of a mark's children, or pretend to be harmless vandals.  It's the perfect opportunity for James.

I liked that THE RECRUIT explored the lives of kids who aren't often protagonists, especially in children's literature.  James has lots of rough edges.  I also liked that it tackled difficult topics, and didn't reduce complicated issues to black and white stances.  After James completes his first mission, he isn't entirely sure that things worked out for the best, since no one involved was entirely good or bad.  I didn't enjoy how much time was spent on boot camp.  I would've eaten up as a kid, but found it a bit distressing to read about a kid going through something that is hard on adults.

I think that THE RECRUIT could be read by younger readers - nine or so.  The language isn't overly difficult, and it's very engaging.  However, the subject matter (including terrorism, underage drinking, and drugs) probably bumps up the intended age of the reader.  For concerned parents, I think that everything is presented in an age appropriate way and not in a favorable light. 

THE RECRUIT was a fun, fast novel, but I don't think I'll keep reading the series.  It skews a bit too young for me.

April 18, 2014

Review: The Forever Song

The Forever Song Book three of the Blood of Eden trilogy
By Julie Kagawa
Available now from Harlequin Teen
Review copy
Read my reviews of The Eternity Cure, The Iron Daughter, and Grim

Julie Kagawa brings her Blood of Eden trilogy to a fitting conclusion, full of action, grief, love, and sacrifice.  Somehow, when I started the book, I thought Kagawa would instantly find a loophole to make the ending of THE ETERNITY CURE all better.  But she doesn't, and heroine Allie has give up struggling with her vampiric nature in her despair.

Allie, along with her mentor Kanin and brother Jackal, are traveling to stop mad vampire Sarren before he can make it to Eden and unleash a virus to kill all humans and vampires.  Unfortunately for them, Sarren is mad like a fox.  I truly enjoy the quasi-familial relationship that the three share, so it was nice to spend quite a bit of time with them on their journey.  It's also interesting to see how three people can pursue the same course while motivated for such different reasons.

I really didn't like Kagawa's faerie series (I quit halfway through the second book), so it's kind of amazing to me how much I loved this trilogy.  I thought it mixed post-apocalyptic fiction with vampire lore very well, creating something that played with the tropes of both without being the same old same old.  The strong characterization and relationships are also a highlight.  The romance is front and center (this is a Harlequin imprint), but it's certainly not the only relationship explored.

I definitely would read THE IMMORTAL RULES and THE ETERNITY CURE before diving into THE FOREVER SONG.  It doesn't spend any time explaining what is happening to new readers.  It is entirely focused on moving the story forward to the conclusion.  I think this trilogy finishes strong, for those who have been waiting for the reaction to the final book to start.  The science is terrible, but I can forgive that in a vampire book.  Especially in a vampire road-trip trilogy.

April 16, 2014

Review: To All the Boys I've Loved Before

To All the Boys I've Loved Before By Jenny Han
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy

I like Jenny Han's novels, but her current (co-written) series doesn't appeal to me.  TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, however, sounded awesome.  Laura Jean Song writes letters to the boys she's crushed on when she's ready to let go of the crush and move on.  When her letters get mailed, she has to deal with the leak of her private feelings.

When I started TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, I was expecting a romance.  If you are expecting a romance, then you'll be disappointed.  The novel's focus is Lara Jean and her personal journey.  Boys are involved, but they're secondary.  Just as important are Lara Jean's sisters.  Margot, the older sister, took over the household after their mother died, but now she's off to college in another country.  Lara Jean misses her sister, but it also gives her some of the space she needs to define herself.  She's lived a cautious, non-confrontational life, but sometimes you have to say what you want and go for it.

That being said, the romantic parts are great.  You see, Lara Jean isn't over one of the boys: Josh.  But Josh was Margot's boyfriend until she moved.  So Lara Jean pretends to be dating Peter, one of the other letter recipients, who happens to want to send a "We are really broken up" message to his ex.  I am so tired of love triangles, but this one worked for me because I wasn't able to predict where it was going.  (At least, not initially.)  Lara Jean's interest in the boys didn't seem plot mandated, nor were they mysterious bad boys who just walked into her life.  She clearly had an interest in both before the book began.

I also enjoyed how Lara Jean's Korean heritage was woven through the story.  She's only half, but obviously Asian.  Most of the time, it doesn't matter, but sometimes it really does, like how all her Halloween costumes are assumed to be Asian characters.  Han really understands that adding specificity to Lara Jean's story makes it more realistic and relatable instead of less.

I think that TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen and other contemporary YA writers.  There is going to be a sequel, P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU, and I can't wait till next spring to read it.  (Please note that I read the ARC of TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, and it has been announced that the final book has a longer ending and a couple of extra chapters.  I will update this review after I read the final version if there are any changes relevant to my review.)

April 15, 2014

Review: The Geography of You and Me

The Geography of You and Me By Jennifer E. Smith
Available now from Poppy (Hachette)
Review copy

Popular YA author Jennifer E. Smith takes a real-life blackout in New York and turns it into a story that spans a year and multiple countries.  It is a slight story, although an appealing one.  Lucy and Owen are trapped together in an elevator during the blackout and share an amazing night, but their new bond is strained when they both move.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME takes the one-amazing-night plot of books like BRIGHT BEFORE SUNRISE and asks, "What happens next?"  Smith does excel at the high-concept premise.  She falls a little short, however, in the execution.  Oh, THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME is breezy and sweet, but the romance could use some serious beefing up.

The blurb talks about how Lucy and Owen stay in touch and want to reunite.  Stay in touch mostly means that Owen sends brief postcards and Lucy sometimes sends emails Owen never responds to.  Want to reunite means they both date other people and sometimes stop talking to each other altogether.  Don't get me wrong; it's realistic.  Why wouldn't they attempt relationships with people who are right there?  Why wouldn't the pressures of long distance and not knowing each other all that well not get to them?  But I felt like I signed up for a book full of long, romantic communications and that's not what I got at all.

I enjoyed that Lucy and Owen both had developed personalities and families.  When they first meet, neither one is in the best place.  But as they grow through the year, they make decisions to make themselves happier and their perspectives naturally change.  There's some nice character growth for both of them.  It's just that neither of them gets a full chance to shine since they're co-narrators, and their potential keeps coming back to a slight, romantic comedy plotline.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME is an enjoyable beach read, and I expect many teens will love it as such.  But it had the potential to be something better.

April 14, 2014

Review: The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse Book one of The Winner's Trilogy
By Marie Rutkoski
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR (Macmillan)
Review copy

I was under the impression that THE WINNER'S CURSE was almost entirely about the romance between Kestrel and Arin.  I was wrong.  Their love for each other drives many of their decisions, but THE WINNER'S CURSE is about much more than two teenagers in love.

Kestrel is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a general, and thus a high-ranking Valorian.  She must marry or enlist in the army by the time she is twenty, but until them she is determined to find her own path.  Things go a bit awry when she stumbles across a slave auction and makes an impulsive purchase of a young Herrani man.  You see, Kestrel lives in the Herrani peninsula, where the Herrani where enslaved after the Valorians took over.  The Herrani are obviously unhappy about this, which Kestrel is a bit blind to, despite her strategic mind.  She is uncomfortable with slavery, however; initially she ignores that she bought a person.  Then she starts using Arin as her escort, for single Valerian women must be escorted and she trusts him to let her do what she wants.

I didn't always buy that Kestrel and Arin fell in love (she owns him!), but I loved the complicated dance between them.  Arin has his own motives and his own clever mind.  Kestrel is terrific at getting out of tricky situations using her powers of observation and intelligence.  Despite my crack at her strategic mind before, THE WINNER'S CURSE is not a case of being told about a character's skills.  Kestrel shows her abilities over, and over.  Thus, THE WINNER'S CURSE is about two capable, crafty survivors who are unwilling to let their people be the one's thrown over the bus.

I wasn't familiar with the term before this, but "the winner's curse" is an auction term referring to win the winner pays too much for what they receive.  Kestrel invokes it when she buys Arin.  And, as the story goes on, it seems that one of them will have to invoke it again, to save either their love or their country.  Author Marie Rutkoski is not afraid of making things complicated.

I devoured THE WINNER'S CURSE in a single afternoon, and the unexpected ending has me eager to read the next book.  The romance between Arin and Kestrel might be a slow burn, but the story is fast paced and thrilling.  Notably, Rutkoski makes both sides sympathetic to the reader.  The characters are sometimes vile and sometimes charming, no matter which side they're on.  Killing people always has weight.  But slavery is always bad, thankfully.  Man, I just have to know how things turn out.

April 11, 2014

Review: The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy By Kate Hattemer
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

When NetGalley sent out an email of hot upcoming titles, I was instantly drawn to THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY.  I wanted to know what a vigilante poet was.  Add in that those vigilante poets' nemesis is a reality television show (a very current YA trend), and I was there.

Ethan and his three best friends, Luke, Jonathon, and Elizabeth, are students at Selwyn Academy.  It's an arts academy, where the halls are filled with conversations such as Monet versus Manet.  But lately, the only conversation is about For Arts' SakeFAS is a new reality TV show filming at Selwyn, featuring Selwyn students.  As they discover just how fake the show is, they decide to do something about it.  They'll write, print, and distribute a long poem (inspired by Ezra Pound's Cantos) to protest FAS and rile the student body.  Things don't go as planned when ringleader Luke joins the show and Ethan, Jonathon, and Elizabeth are left to fight alone.

This book is insane and I love it.  Debut author Kate Hattemer does an amazing job of keeping the plot from tipping too far into unreality.  The characters are studying the Cantos in English, which is why they have long poems on the brain.  Ethan doesn't actually get the Cantos all that easily and has to think about one the language means.  (And of course this all means that Pound gets quoted frequently, and his language is as lovely as ever.)  Then there's the poetry by Luke and the others, which is appealing and clever, but not too much so for high school students.

I also really loved the characters of THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY.  Several of the antagonists are just good people who could have done better.  (The vice principal is cartoonishly evil, but what vice principle isn't?  And one of the contestants doesn't have any redeeming features, but that's clearly because narrator Ethan loathes him.)  Ethan is a talented, nice kid, but he clearly has a lot to learn about interacting with people, particularly those he likes.  (Sometimes the book isn't subtle as I'd like about that point.)  The two girl characters are fantastic.  Elizabeth (who I assume is black due to her dreads) is as involved in the plans as any of the boys, makes sure that her point of view is heard, and drives recklessly.  Maura, a contestant on the show and Ethan's crush, really doesn't care how the show portrays her because she just wants the scholarship money to go to Julliard since she can dance.  Maura doesn't think twice about trashing her reputation for her arts' sake. 

I think THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY is a seriously great book.  It delivers and fast and funny story about teenage rebellion while contemplating the many ways reality TV is totally fake, friendship is hard (especially because people change or are never who you thought they were), and the tragically short lives of pocket pets.  It earns that "poets" in its title as well.  The poetry in the book is accessible, but not dumbed down.  THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY revels in how poetry can be a force.  I am all for that, and all for this book.

April 10, 2014

Review: Darkbound

Darkbound Second book in The Legacy of Moonset series
By Scott Tracey
Available now from Flux (Llewellyn)
Review copy
Read my reviews of Phantom Eyes and Moonset

I thoroughly enjoyed MOONSET, which I called a book about "small towns with secrets, people with secrets, a closely bound found family, black magic, and a protagonist who has a lot to learn" and noted that I was eager for the next book to see how some surprising revelations played out and what other secrets would be uncovered.  It set the stage of five siblings bound my magic, possibly as part of their now deceased parents' villainous master plan.

DARKBOUND's point of view shifts from Justin (the mediator sibling), who narrated MOONSET, to Malcolm (the just-wants-to-be-normal sibling).  It picks up all the threads left open at the end of MOONSET, ties them up with the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and throws in a powerful creep who misunderstands the meaning of love.

I took a bit to warm up to Mal at first.  I really liked Justin the super socially awkward.  Mal gets along with most people pretty well.  It's his siblings, the characters the reader already cares about, who he doesn't quite mesh with.  He wants a freedom that none of the others do.  But warm up to him I did, especially as DARKBOUND began to redeem Jenna (the troublemaking sibling).  Jenna wasn't flat-out awful or anything, but it's nice to see her point of view get some sympathy and for her to get some heroic moments.

I also liked how Mal was rounded out by the things he didn't say and his contradictions.  He clearly has a complicated relationship with his body (possibly an eating disorder) that possibly comes from the lack of control in his life due to his coven bond.  He also only expresses interests in other men, but never outright discusses his sexuality.  He gets along quite well with the head of the witchy Congress, despite the fact that he has a number of reasons to fear and dislike her.  He's unreasonable about magic in a way his siblings aren't, but he's more reasonable about a few things.

DARKBOUND does have it's flaws.  The climax is somewhat confusing, and definitely casts Mal in a different light.  Ash, Justin's girlfriend, disappears from the narrative completely.  There are only a few hints as to what the Moonset coven's ultimate plans were.  (Is this series going to be longer than a trilogy? I don't know.)  However, like its predecessor, it is fun.

I wonder which sibling will narrate next.  Jenna?  I'd love to read a book featuring her, but at the same time younger sibling Bailey and Cole have been shifted to the side.  (Cole certainly displays an intriguing bit of strangeness in DARKBOUND.)  But I'm eager to see where this series goes and how my perception will continue to shift as I read.  After all, like their parents, Justin, Jenna, Mal, Cole, and Bailey might not be the good guys.

April 8, 2014

Review: Sekret

Sekret By Lindsay Smith
Available now from Roaring Brook Press
Review copy

SEKRET is set in the Cold War-era USSR, when Nikita Krushchev was in power.  Heroine Yulia is in hiding with her mother and brother.  They used to be part of the Party, but then their father turned traitor and fled.  Now they survive based on her mother's medical skills and Yulia's talent for fencing medicine.  But things are about to change.

Because in SEKRET's Soviet Union, there are psychics.  Yulia just happens to be one of them, and her government wants her.  Working for the government means better food, better clothes, care for her brother, training in her powers.  It also means working for the government.  Getting people killed. Other bad things.  Yulia knows she has to escape, but doesn't know how to escape from people who can read her mind or predict her every move.  Escaping might not mean freedom, either.  It might mean working for another country's government instead.  It might also mean the execution of her brother and mother.  Yulia's stuck, unless she's very, very clever.

Not one of SEKRET's twists surprised me.   That didn't matter much, because I still enjoyed reading it.  I liked most of the other psychics, and felt for Yulia and them both when their motives conflicted.  SEKRET doesn't shy away from how hard it can be to live with people whose goals only partially align with yours and who have the ability to discern just where you diverge.

The relationships between the kids aren't restricted to friendship and suspicion.  There is romance.  It is not a love triangle of the type where the heroine can't decide between two guys, although two boys are involved.  Yulia is only interested in one of guys, which causes a great deal of friction.  (And, well, there aren't an equal number of girl and guy psychics, so pickings are slim.)  I liked Yulia and Valentin's relationship, which develops as they begin to trust each other, and is both sweet and sexy.

I think SEKRET will appeal to fans of spy thrillers who don't mind a bit of genetic mutation in their plot.  Smith mixes the science fiction and history well so that both are integral to the story.  Best of all, the Soviet Union-United States space race is involved.  Smith's debut novel is quite the thriller, intriguing characters and concepts more than making up for a predictable plot.

April 6, 2014

Review: Stolen Songbird

Book Cover First book of the Malediction trilogy
By Danielle L. Jensen
Available now from Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot)
Review copy

I think Strange Chemistry is putting out some great books, but STOLEN SONGBIRD, one of their newest releases, didn't quite work for me.  Cécile de Troyes dreams of making it as a singer - but then she is kidnapped, married and bonded to a troll prince, and forced to sink or swim in an unfamiliar, violent and political realm.  Understanding her new husband and his motivations might help her survive, or it might lead to both of their deaths.

STOLEN SONGBIRD contained many plot elements that I love.  There are political machinations and people hiding their true feelings for instance.  And debut author Danielle L. Jensen comes up with some interesting complications.  Tristan, Cécile's husband, and the other trolls cannot lie.  Thus, the brewing rebellion has at least one big weakness.  Also, the bond between Tristan and Cécile means that they can feel each other's emotions.

Even with these pluses, I found myself unentranced by STOLEN SONGBIRD.  There was nothing that made me hate the book, but I felt like I had to force myself to keep reading it when there were other books I wanted to read more.  I feel like Jensen never pushed the elements of her story to their full potential.  For instance, the bond turns out to mostly end up warning Tristan whenever Cécile gets hurt.  There's no sense of intrusiveness or an invasion privacy, despite both of them being unwilling to bond.  Given that there's a strong element of romance, it's also strangely sexless.  They never seem to feel lust.

I feel like STOLEN SONGBIRD had potential.  If it were a little tighter and more development given to Tristan and the implications of the bond, it might've worked better.  Or perhaps if more time had been spent on the rebellion than the tepid romance.  As is, STOLEN SONGBIRD was a fairly generic YA fantasy novel.  Although it was about trolls, which are an underused fantasy race.

April 1, 2014

Review: The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor By Katherine Addison
Available now from Tor (Macmillan)
Review copy

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR grabbed me tight and didn't let me go until it finished.  Not an easy feat for a book with approximately one half of an action scene in over four hundred pages.  That doesn't mean the scope of the book is small - the health of an entire empire is on the line, as civil war and external war both loom on the horizon.

Maia was the youngest and least favored son of the emperor.  He's half goblin and not exactly attractive by court standards, to top it off.  When his father and brothers die in an accident shortly before his eighteenth birthday, he his unexpectedly crowned emperor.  Given his youth and isolated childhood, he's ill prepared to take the throne.  That doesn't mean, however, that Maia is prepared to roll over and be a puppet.  He's critical of his father's rule and determined to do better, but he'll need to find allies he can trust if he's going to figure out how to make "better" happen.

Katherine Addison is a new penname of Sarah Monette.  I've read her novels as Monette, but I didn't know she had something like THE GOBLIN EMPEROR in her.  It has the elegant descriptions I expected, but it works in a way The Doctrine of Labyrinths didn't work for me.  Part of that is Maia himself.  He's a terrific central character, thoughtful, clever, but perhaps a bit too trusting and with a potential for cruelty.  And cruelty is a bad trait to be seeded in an emperor.

I quite liked the other characters too.  Maia has bodyguards that must constantly be with him, as well as a secretary who is far below him in class and rank but far above him in interpreting the people of the court.  He also has a fiancee, because he must guarantee the succession.  I wished for more of their awkward courtship, although I understood the book already had so much going on.  But it was quite fascinating to see two people who don't want to get married attempt to make overtures to each other.

And, okay, while there's only half an outright action scene, there is tons of intrigue.  I love me some intrigue.  There is backstabbing, opportunism, trade disagreements, fear of progress, and more.  It's delicious.  I could eat it up with a spoon, and I did.

I felt that the ending of THE GOBLIN EMPEROR came too soon.  There is a resolution, a true indication of the type of ruler Maia will be, but honestly I could've spent five hundred pages more with these characters in this world.  I would give my left arm for a sequel.  (I will, however, need my right arm to turn the pages.)


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